Reflections: The MMIWG Report and the Role of the Freshwater Community

Today is National Indigenous Day. A day to celebrate the incredible contributions, knowledges, and cultures of Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island (i.e. the continent known as North America).

This year, National Indigenous People’s Day comes just weeks after the National Inquiry on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) released their damning report, based upon the testimonies of hundreds of people affected by violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people in Canada. Importantly, the report states that this tragedy is part of an "ongoing genocide" that has been centuries in the making.

We would be remiss to only celebrate this day without also acknowledging and actively working to address the past and ongoing injustices faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This blog post is a reflection on what the freshwater and the environmental communities can do to advance the Calls to Justice outlined in the report.


Some Reflections on the Contents of the Report

To begin, I will say I haven’t read the report in full. I have read parts of the Executive Summary and many of the Calls to Justice. I will continue to read it over in the weeks to come. I have been following some of the news coverage, and I must say, I find much of the debate very disheartening and in bad faith.

In particular, the media’s response to whether MMIWG can be understood and situated in a context of genocide has been pretty worrisome, with many commentators arguing that there has been no genocide against Indigenous peoples in Canada. I think these claims are very shocking to people familiar with the history of this country.  

In October, the Freshwater Alliance and a number of other freshwater and environmental staffers and volunteers participated in a “blanket exercise” lead by Kairos Canada. The blanket exercise is a role-playing exercise that takes participants through a select history of Indigenous-settler relations in Canada. The exercise starts with all participants standing on blankets, representing Indigenous peoples and their access to and use of land across Canada.

By the end of the exercise, a fraction of people who were initially standing on blankets remained. As the exercise progressed, a number of events transpired—from the smallpox epidemic, to the “Sixties Scoop” and many others—and the facilitators asked most of us to “join the ancestors”, representing people who were lost to disease, colonial violence, suicide and more. Blankets were folded, and removed, representing the loss of territory. 

At the end of the exercise, many of us were very emotional at this visceral re-enactment. The blanket exercise, unfortunately, is not an exaggeration of events. In some communities, more than 90% of the population was lost after colonial settlement.

Here is a pretty stark visual. Before settlers arrived, anthropologists estimate that approximately 2 million people lived in the country now called Canada. When the first Census was taken in 1871, only about 120,000 Indigenous people were accounted for. The population barely grew at all until the 1960s. Today, the number of Indigenous people in Canada is still not as large as it was over 500 years ago.

Looking at that visual, it looks pretty obviously like genocide to me. 

Compare that to the general population of Canada: steady and large growth from 1500 to present day.

Reflections on the Role of the Environmental Community

However, the point of this blog is not to enter into this debate. It is to reflect on the role of the environmental community in responding to the report.

I am sure many of us have seen the media coverage of the report and a range of reactions to it. However, I don’t recall seeing any environmental organizations in my newsfeed talk about or acknowledge the report. I will say that the Freshwater Alliance is guilty of this as well.

As the Communications Lead, I have had a hard time knowing how to connect the report with the work that we do. So I read stories about the report, listened to podcasts and radio shows in my personal life, but did not issue a statement or share stories in our social media under the auspices of CFA.

When you’re working on a specific issue (in our case, building public support and engagement in defense of our shared freshwater), it can be easy to slip into silos; to say that other issues are not our issues. Of course, we can’t take on every important social issue, or our scope would be impossibly large, and we would have a really hard time achieving our goals.

However, I do think the report and its findings are our issue. I think it’s all of our issue—as people living in Canada, whether for just a day or for generations. The fabric of our lives is tied up with this history and present. We should care about this issue because it’s a gross violation of rights; because it challenges our basic notions of justice and fairness.

I also think there are implications specifically for our work as environmental and freshwater advocates and we should care about this issue for those reasons as well.

For one, the report reminds us how, in many communities, Indigeneous women, girls and two-spirited folk have often traditionally played an important role “provid[ing] for and protect[ing] their communities by managing a community’s resources and as land defenders and water keepers.” Of course it stands to bear that when a people’s land and water defenders are at risk, so too will be the land and the waters.

I think of many of the Indigenous women in Canada and around the world who have been so instrumental in defending their community’s waters—like the late Grandmother Josephine Mandimin—the visionary of the Water Walk movement; the renowned food justice advocate Winona LaDuke; Berta Carceres—the heroic Honduran land defender who was ruthlessly killed for her activism, and countless others.

The report also iterates how the rate at which Indigenous women and girls are murdered or disappeared (4 times higher than the average rate for non-Indigenous women and girls) is inextricably tied to a history of colonization—including but not limited to how settlers have dispossessed Indigenous people from the land. This includes continued dispossession and suffering disproportionate impacts from environmental pollution and resource exploitation.

Our work to defend lands and waters must be mindful of traditional and ongoing uses by Indigenous peoples, otherwise, we stand to perpetuate this problem, even if unwittingly.

As a non-Indigenous organization, we have had a lot of discussions on what role we can play to advance reconciliation in our own work and also encourage this work in the freshwater community more generally. We’ve started in earnest, but there is always room to do more.

As we continue to do this work, here are some specific Calls to Justice from the MMIWG report that appear to be particularly relevant to us and work we do. We will work as a team to consider how we heed these calls, and we invite you to do the same.


Calls to Justice for Media and Influencers:

6.1 …[T]ake decolonizing approaches in their work and publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

6.1.ii  Support Indigenous people sharing their stories, from their perspectives, free of bias, discrimination, and false assumptions, and in a trauma-informed and culturally sensitive way.


Calls to Justice for All Canadians:

15.1  Denounce and speak out against violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

15.2  Decolonize by learning the true history of Canada and Indigenous history in your local area. Learn about and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ history, cultures, pride, and diver- sity, acknowledging the land you live on and its importance to local Indigenous communities, both historically and today.

15.3 Develop knowledge and read the Final Report. Listen to the truths shared, and acknowl- edge the burden of these human and Indigenous rights violations, and how they impact Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people today.

15.4 Using what you have learned and some of the resources suggested, become a strong ally. Being a strong ally involves more than just tolerance; it means actively working to break down barriers and to support others in every relationship and encounter in which you participate.

15.5 Confront and speak out against racism, sexism, ignorance, homophobia, and transphobia, and teach or encourage others to do the same, wherever it occurs: in your home, in your workplace, or in social settings.

15.8  Help hold all governments accountable to act on the Calls for Justice, and to implement them according to the important principles we set out.